Deaf mechanic wins employment suit against United Airlines
Thanassis Cambanis, The Boston Globe,
August 8, 2002
Five years of anger and
frustration ended Wednesday for a deaf airline
mechanic when a federal judge ruled
that United Airlines had papered over its
discrimination with a flurry of sham reasons not to hire him.
In a 43-page ruling, U.S.
District Judge George A. O'Toole Jr. ordered
United to offer John Sprague, 40, a job and
pay him at least $320,000 in damages and
"It's been really hard for
me to wait this long, but right now
I'm so happy," Sprague said from his home in
Grafton, Mass., Wednesday. "This is a
great victory for everyone who has disabilities."
Advocates for people who
are deaf and hard of hearing hailed the decision as
a significant step forward for the
Americans with Disabilities Act.
"We litigate cases like
this so that employers in the future won't
discriminate against people," said Jane K.
Alper, a senior attorney with the Disability
Law Center in Boston. "This decision has huge significance. It
proves that the ADA does work."
For Sprague, who has been
deaf since birth, the decision means he can return
to the career that has been his
passion since childhood. As a teenager, he
learned to fly small planes. He took his first full-time job fixing
planes at Taunton Airport in 1986,
and never let the fact that he can't hear most
sounds get in his way.
won rave reviews for his acumen as a mechanic. During the
course of his lawsuit in federal court,
former supervisors said Sprague used lip
reading, speech and notes to communicate
well with colleagues. In 1997,
Sprague finally reached his goal: working for a major airline.
United Airlines offered him a job as a line
mechanic at Logan Airport on April 8
of that year. But within weeks, a senior executive at UAL rescinded
Instead, United gave
Sprague a job in a maintenance shop in San Francisco,
even though he had filed a
discrimination suit against the company after the
Logan job was withdrawn. For nearly a
year, Sprague commuted every week to the
West Coast, faxing pictures to his two
daughters when he couldn't come home to see
them. He later took a job as a mechanic for
AirTran at Logan, which he held until that
airline cut its staff two years ago.
Since then, he has worked
as a freelance landscaper and carpenter while
waiting for O'Toole's ruling on his
O'Toole, who heard the case
in a jury-waived trial in May 2000, ruled
Wednesday that United Airlines acted in "bad
faith" when it argued that Sprague could not
perform critical duties of a line mechanic and expressed
concern for his safety on a busy airport tarmac.
"United's shifting explanation of its reasons for withdrawing
the job offer undermines United's
credibility and suggests that the company simply did not
want to employ a deaf line mechanic,"
United spokesman Chris
Brathwaite said Wednesday that the airline was only
concerned about its employees'
safety, including Sprague's. "We don't think
we violated any laws or policies," Brathwaite said. "At United, we
were very disappointed in the outcome
of the case."
The airline has not yet
decided whether to appeal the judge's decision, he
added. Sprague can hear speech
but can't distinguish words. With the help of
digital hearing aids, however, he can detect a significant
range of sounds,
including airplane warnings and irregular engine noises.
"His life has been on hold
since the job got withdrawn in 1997," said
Shannon Liss-Riordan, who represented
Sprague at trial along with Alper and
attorney Harold Lichten. "This has just been his life's dream."
The trial before O'Toole lasted
nearly a month and featured detailed
testimony from other airline mechanics and
hearing specialists. The evidence convinced
O'Toole that Sprague, despite his disability, could conduct all
the essential functions of a line
"This is the quintessential
ADA case," Liss-Riordan said. "United Airlines
made assumptions about John Sprague
because of his disability, and those
assumptions were wrong." Tom Boudrow,
executive director of the Massachusetts
State Association for the Deaf, said
companies are gradually learning not to "create
invisible walls" that keep out people
"It's a shame that
(Sprague) had to wait five years for the law to tell the
company what is obvious: that it is
blatant discrimination," Boudrow said.